As high school hockey juggernaut Catholic Memorial was busy displaying its prowess upon the ice at Falmouth Ice Arena Saturday night, caught in between the intermittent cheers of “Let’s Go Falmouth, Let’s go Falmouth,” a different set of cheers and hoots and encouragements emanated from the Clipper Faithful.
There were cheers for just one individual. Amidst the chatty teenage girls dressed in their boyfriends’ maroon Falmouth hockey jerseys, in spite of the 37 cellphones I counted in my immediate vicinity being scanned and tapped on by their owners, the loudest cheers seemed to reverberate greater than the intermittent sound system blare of the TV reality show theme song from Cops.
They were cheers for the smallest man on the ice. Smallest, perhaps, in relative terms of measured height, but by no means smallest by measure of heart.
They were cheers for Falmouth High School varsity hockey player, # 7, Ryan Pina. All of four-feet-something, his whirling visage upon the ice stood in poignant contrast to the long-legged horses of the visiting Knights and even his own beloved Clipper teammates. It mattered little in the third period that Catholic Memorial had built an insurmountable lead of 6-1. Ryan Pina skated like the wind, battled for the puck and took a mid-ice body check square across his chest like any true Clipper soldier on skates would. Not for two seconds did he visibly succumb to the fierce body blow he took or give into the idea that he wasn’t somehow physiologically designed to be in this place at this time doing this thing.
He didn’t give in because that’s not what Ryan Pina does. Chatting with the various fans seated around me — even while I was entirely riveted and solely focused upon this young man — I was sharply struck by the idea that the true inspiration of this competition, the true underlying message that was being conveyed by its sheer symbolism was unfolding before my eyes. Perhaps it was lost upon those who had come to witness a hopeful upset of one of the state’s top tier high school hockey teams. Perhaps the message was lost upon the T-shirt wearing, ball cap-adorned adolescents who were more in tune with the evening’s post-game “plans” than they were with the immediacy of the moment at hand.
But it was not lost upon these eyes and this heart.
In the breakneck speed and cartilage-bending vacillation that is the sport of ice hockey, it quite unexpectedly fell over me in the most uplifting and ineffable way. I did not weave through cranberry bogs down heretofore unknown back roads to arrive on this rainy night at Technology Park in Falmouth with the idea that I might leave rejuvenated with the true spirit of what it means, simply, to live. I have never met Ryan Pina and I may never get the chance to. But if I could meet any one athlete whose blades have sliced across the pristine surface of the Falmouth Ice Arena, then most assuredly I am certain it would be this young man.
His shift on the ice over, my eyes still glued to his every move, I watched as Ryan Pina’s teammates opened the home team bench gate to welcome him back to the fold. For the first time the entire game I was then drawn quickly to Falmouth High School head coach Paul Moore who stood behind his troops and applauded them loudly and sincerely. There were no shouts of frustration at the score. There were no rants or admonishments or curses. As quixotic as this portrait may seem, it was as genuine as any I had ever witnessed in more than three decades of games played, coached and written about. Beneath the imposing gallery of crimson state championship banners, the most imposing figure in this building, for one brief moment, was this giant-hearted Falmouth High School junior classman on skates, stick in hand.
And it was this moment that reminded me of the true meaning of sports and being an athlete and a competitor, and in that instant the stern words of my high school football coach came flooding back into my mind as if they were spoken yesterday: “It is not the size of the dog in the fight,” my coach bellowed out one late October afternoon at dusk 35 years ago. “It is the size of the fight in the dog.”
— Sean Walsh is the sports editor for www.capecod.com. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @coachwalshccbm.